I Attended a Class on How to Form a Body Blockade, Here’s What I Experienced

“The police are not our friends,” the facilitator’s words bellowed from the basement of the church on Seattle’s south side as more than 100 of us sat listening. “Yes, they have legal authority, but remember not everyone has the same experience with police.”

We were only 15 seconds into this five-hour training on how to organize and roll-out non-violent direct action protests. I sensed some of the white folks in the crowd may not have expected such an intense beginning. And, in a way, that moment illustrated one of the great divides in our country.

The facilitator, a black man who’s been arrested for protesting during the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, explained that his perspective on police is from that of a black man who grew up in a poor, black family. His life experience has taught him that the police are almost always against him.

Compare that to my own experience as a privileged white guy. I’ve been taught from Kindergarten that police officers are my friend and that if I’m ever in trouble, I should find the police. Many people of color have been taught the exact opposite because their elders experienced the racism and violence of our systems, of our police forces.

“I’m not trying to vilify police, but when you’re in a protest action, do not associate with them,” the facilitator continued.

His words hit us less than 24 hours after federal authorities had started rounding up hundreds of immigrants for deportation, pulling them from their families, their homes, their places of business.

The facilitator’s words hit us less than two days after this Republican administration signed an executive order authorizing greater powers for police, including firm direction to the Department of Justice to prosecute those who “commit crimes” against law enforcement officers.

I have friends who are police officers. But, the discussion of police is not about my personal relationships with police officers, it is about the institutions and instruments the government uses to enforce unjust orders.

If I’d heard this facilitator three years ago, I might have been more uncomfortable, but today the words resonated with me and comforted me. Police are an instrument of the state and the state is now, before our eyes, preying on the most vulnerable among us. Here’s what I’ve seen within the past 48 hours:

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As far as we know, raids have not begun in Seattle or Washington state, but lawyers across our city and state are mobilizing to respond on a moment’s notice to get to any raid locations if and when they happen. The City of Seattle has now even started marking its emotion on Facebook updates as “pissed off” in response to immigrant raids. This is where we are.

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To give you some context around this direct action training course, while we were in it, there were two protests raging in different parts of our city. To learn how to do direct action, we had to choose to miss out on these protests. Here are pictures from those protests that were shared on Facebook.

This protest brought hundreds of people to Planned Parenthood in Kent, just south of Seattle. The pro-Planned Parenthood crowd showed up after pro-life folks came together to show up and intimidate the organization.

At the same time, another protest brought dozens of folks to Cal Anderson Park in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community, especially as this Republican administration already started rolling back legal protections for transgender folks.

We followed these protests on our phones from the direct action training.

After our facilitator’s stirring words, he assigned us to small groups and assigned each group a task in a role-play we were about to do, a mock-up of the SeaTac protests from two weeks ago. For purposes of our imagination, they made this one an Amtrak train station where immigrants were being shipped out.

In those groups we had five minutes to meet our cohorts and organize how we were going to fulfill our given identity in the role-play. Some groups were employees of the “train station”, some were police, some were observers, some were protesters.

My group was assigned to be protesters and we were also told to be protesters willing to be arrested. So, we quickly decided that we had to take the lead on forming a human blockade at both entrances to the train, to block passengers.

The role-play felt nearly as real as things felt at SeaTac Airport when Nick and I actually blocked passengers from getting to their gate.

We continued role-playing for the next hour or so as some of us acted like protesters at Wells Fargo Bank and our partners acted like Wells Fargo security officers, employees and customers. A key part of direct action is knowing how to navigate those tense interactions when you are a peaceful protester blocking someone from entering, or from going about their business.

I made friends with a 61-year-old woman who’s lived in Seattle since 1985 but is originally from Atlanta. She’s a psychologist. She reminded me a bit of my mom and aunts. We instantly bonded.

She told me that she wouldn’t have expected to find herself preparing to be on the front lines of protests, risking arrest. But, the past few weeks have changed her, especially, she says, her participation in the Women’s March. She says seeing all those people in the streets made her realize that everyone must be prepared to get in the streets.

Similar stories were scattered throughout the room, one white woman from the suburbs told the group that she’s a mother of two kids who are both younger than five. I can only imagine what she and others new to protesting must have thought as we moved into the next lessons.

The following hours were spent showing us how to form blockades with our bodies. There is a lot of thought that goes into this. For instance, if you are going to form a straight line and be side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder, you have to think about the fact that you can’t really see behind you, it’s hard to communicate with each other, and you probably need the line to be two people deep for reinforcement. Plus, there are specific ways to link arms and hold your fists together.

Perhaps it’s best for your situation if you form a standing circle where everyone is linking arms. But, do you face inward or outward in your circle? Well, it depends. If group communication is the number one priority, then inward. If seeing what’s coming your way is the most important, you face outward.

Perhaps there’s a time when it makes more sense to form a sitting circle, facing outward. This one is for the long-haul as it is hard to stand again without opening yourself and your group to being run over. But, sitting can communicate peace more than other positions.

If you’re looking for the strongest blockade, but don’t plan to have to be in it for long, the “caterpillar” is best. This involves everyone sitting in a line, putting both their legs and arms around the person in front of them. It makes it very difficult for police to use intimidation or pain tactics. The facilitator made it clear, police will come after you with billy clubs and tear gas. This formation can provide the most protection, should that happen.

Perhaps you’ll be blocking people or an entrance for hours upon hours. Another option is to construct a “technical blockade”. This involves things like building structures to block a path, or linking a group by everyone using climbing hooks to lock their arms together inside a pvc pipe wrapped in duct tape. It could look like these actions:

The facilitators demonstrated this technical blockade tactic by passing around a pvc pipe that had been used to lock arms together in a protest:

“For those of you who’ve been arrested, is there anything you wish you’d known prior to being arrested?,” the facilitator asked the room as he took us into the final lesson for the day on legal issues.

Of course this lesson had much to do with how to interact with police. And, it had a lot to do with teaching us that the deck is stacked in the favor of police. And, the larger lesson that the justice system is classist and racist.

Absolutely never touch a cop or his horse or his equipment.

Absolutely do not talk to police.

If you are approached, ask, “Am I being arrested?” and “Am I being detained?”. If the officer says no, then you do not have to say anything else and you should immediately walk away.

It is illegal to lie to police. But, it is NOT illegal for them to lie to you.

Don’t argue with police.

NEVER consent to a search. It is your right to refuse a search.

Always have your phone locked with a number code, not a fingerprint. Police cannot compel you to unlock a number code on your phone, the rules/law are very clear on that. But they can compel you to unlock with a fingerprint because the rules/laws around the fingerprint are much more grey right now. If your phone is set to a fingerprint unlock code, turn your phone off if you are being arrested. When you turn it back on, it requires a number code.

The facilitator reminded us that people of color and gender non-conforming folks will always have it harder when it comes to being targeted for arrest, charged or just interacting with law enforcement in general. They reminded us of something I’ve already learned from being at so many protests since January 20. They said that the legal aid phone number must be written in marker on your body because police will strip you of everything else you have on you including your phone and clothes.

They reminded us that we should take care of outstanding tickets before entering a direct action. They reminded us not to wear jewelry because it’s likely to get you hurt. They reminded us not to wear contacts because tear gas gets caught in contacts. Glasses are much better.

The five-hour session ended with the same role-play it began with, as we attempted to use what we’d learned about quick decision making, group communication and more.

Here’s a roundup of other headlines I’ve seen on my phone in the past 24 hours:

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